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Interview: Challenges and Opportunities of the Northern Sea Route

sovcomflot lng carrier
The icebreaking LNG carrier Christophe de Margerie (file image courtesy SCF)

By Nadezhda Malysheva 08-14-2020 04:45:06

Igor Tonkovidov, President & CEO of SCF Group, recently spoke with PortNews IAA's Nadezhda Malysheva about how the company facilitates the development of navigation along the Northern Sea Route and how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Russia's shipping industry.

This year, SCF’s LNG carrier Christophe de Margerie completed an early eastbound voyage along the North Sea Route. What is your assessment of this voyage? What difficulties arose during the voyage? Do you plan similar early voyages in the future?

In the eastern sector of the NSR, navigation typically starts in July. Our LNG carrier Christophe de Margerie became the first large-capacity vessel of her size to transit this route eastbound two months earlier than normal, in May, when ice conditions in the eastern sector remain challenging. 

Such an early voyage was made possible following an exhaustive risk assessment study conducted at the planning stage, based on our extensive experience of operating in the Arctic as well as by careful consideration of various navigation scenarios together with NOVATEK, our charterer, and Atomflot, our partner in the Arctic. 

Pre-voyage preparations included detailed analysis of anticipated ice and hydrographic conditions along the planned route, in collaboration with the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute and ScanEx. Our specialists, with significant experience of operating vessels in the Arctic and analysing satellite data of ice conditions, were also closely involved in this assessment. 

During her voyage along the Northern Sea Route, the LNG carrier was escorted by the nuclear icebreaker Yamal. We expect that in the future, the use of next-generation Project 22220 nuclear icebreakers will further improve the efficiency of ice escorts and reduce the NSR transit times. These icebreakers, currently under construction, surpass Yamal in terms of power capacity and hull breadth.   

As for the ice conditions, they matched our forecasts. Certainly, in some areas, thick hummocky ice fields, plastic deformation of ice and ice pressure impacted progress. However, the crews of the icebreaker and our LNG carrier were well prepared to handle these obstacles, and in terms of navigation techniques, this did not create any serious difficulties for either vessel. 

As anticipated, the most challenging parts of the route proved to be the Vilkitsky Strait, where the vessels observed numerous icebergs, as well as the East Siberian and the Chukchi seas, where the passage through the ice fields was complicated by severe hummocking and ice pressure. In these areas the ice was free-moving, rather than being attached to the shore, which required our vessel to use her maximum power when underway. 

The most favorable ice conditions were encountered in the Laptev Sea, where the Christophe de Margerie sailed a significant distance through open water due to a notable clearing in the shore fast ice.

In general, the ice conditions allowed the vessel to maintain her pre-determined route. The only deviation occurred in the East Siberian Sea. Initially, the vessel due to travel along the traditional route through the Long Strait, but the ice reconnaissance indicated that easterly winds had created significant ice pressure in the strait, so both vessels actually bypassed Wrangel Island to the north. 

This season the ice conditions in the eastern sector of the NSR match those observed over the past few years (i.e. the average). That said, the ice conditions were less challenging than the long-term average conditions recorded over a 30- or 40-year period. 

It’s worth noting that during the passage along the NSR, we limited the vessel’s speed to that which we considered safe under the observed ice conditions. The vessel’s engines operated close to their peak capacity for only 12 per cent of the voyage time. 

How late might eastbound navigation along the NSR end this year? Do you plan to repeat such early voyages in the future?

The vessel is under commercial charter to the cargo owner, Yamal LNG, which ultimately decides when and in what direction the vessel travels, East or West of Yamal. This decision depends on commercial considerations as well as the ice conditions. 

Of course, year-round navigation along the NSR is the goal for the future. The objective for this voyage was to prove the possibility of having a large-capacity cargo vessel safely transit eastbound across the full length of the NSR in May. This will now significantly expand the navigational window available for transits. 

We always act with caution, step by step, as our corporate philosophy of ‘Safety Comes First’ encourages us to do. Each new step must be properly assessed and planned. The successful early voyage of Christophe de Margerie proved that this navigational window can be significantly expanded when using vessels that are appropriately built and suitable for navigation in the ice conditions of the NSR.  

The voyage also facilitated a further detailed assessment of the icebreaking, manoeuvring and structural capabilities of this series of LNG carriers, as well as of maximum acceptable crew fatigue under the impact of vibration, noise, continuous work in challenging ice conditions, and the need for constant manoeuvring together with the icebreaker or independently. 

We successfully tested the remote online monitoring of the vessel’s key equipment and mechanisms to promptly detect and correct possible malfunctions on board. Detailed data were collected on the vessel’s equipment performance under the challenging ice conditions. In particular, the manufacturer of the vessel’s cargo containment system (GTT) and the manufacturer of her propulsion units (ABB), which are some of the vessel's key systems, both collected such data and provided remote diagnostics. Data collected during this voyage will be reflected in the design of future generations of Arctic vessels, including icebreakers and cargo vessels with a high ice class.  

A lot has been said about the pandemic's challenges with crew rotations – how did you manage to overcome these challenges? 

It is still difficult to accurately estimate and predict the duration and scale of the pandemic’s impact on the shipping industry. What is clear, however, is that this impact is definitely adverse. Disconcertingly, many states are trying to limit the number of foreigners entering their territory as much as possible. 

From our side, we continue to do everything possible to ensure that seafarers return home safely and to allow new crews to reach their vessels. We have optimised our crew rotation schedules to change larger groups of crew members at one time, when a vessel calls at a Russian port, as opposed to our usual practice of replacing crews more gradually, to maintain continuity aboard a vessel. In some cases, we extend the terms of employment contracts and staff are normally receptive to that. 

We do everything necessary to minimise the health risks for crew members, including carefully monitoring the health of each crew member before boarding, during their contract and during changeover. All new crews are admitted onboard only after taking a coronavirus test, spending two weeks under observation, and then passing a second test. We strictly comply with all the regulations of the Russian federal authorities and requirements of Russian Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing (Rospotrebnadzor).

Unfortunately, in some cases local authorities impose additional requirements, which often do not match those at a federal level. This has led to crew rotations being unexpectedly delayed and even canceled, which directly violates the labour rights of seafarers. We had to address this situation in the Murmansk and Khabarovsk regions. With the assistance of the Ministry of Transport, it has been possible to resolve these issues on a case-by-case basis. However, I should like to emphasise that a systematic solution is required. 

This article appears courtesy of PortNews IAA and is reproduced here in an abbreviated form. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.